Years after the fact, young Brisbane dancer Rhoda Kitchener realised her dance partner was her boyfriend’s boyfriend. Aussie pianist George Lawrence and American movie dancer Michael Scrittorale enjoyed a discreet wartime romance as the threat of invasion loomed over Brisbane,
Over-paid, Over-sexed and Over here
World War II had little impact on Brisbane before the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The US then entered the war and Australia prepared to repel a Japanese invasion. The Queensland capital suddenly underwent a massive population surge as 80,000 US servicemen supplemented the existing population of 330,000.
Australian soldiers envied the better-paid and better-dressed Yank invaders. As wartime romance blossomed between Australian women and the American GIs, Aussie men complained the yanks were “over-paid, over-sexed and over here.” In 1942, the animosity exploded into the Battle of Brisbane. Armed American and Australian servicemen battled it out for two days in downtown Brisbane. Hundreds suffered injuries on both sides and one Australian soldier was shot dead.
At the time, Rhoda Kitchener worked at the Cremorne Theatre on the site of the present Queensland Art Gallery. The theatre hosted musical revues with visiting guest stars. For the first time in her life, Rhoda learned of the existence of gays and lesbians.
“I wasn’t innocent as far as sex or anything was concerned. I knew what that was all about, but I was as far as gay people and lesbians because they just weren’t spoken about in those days.”
Rhoda remained oblivious even when a drag king hit on her.
“I’m sitting on a lounge chair and this male impersonator, she was a female and she used to do an act dressed as a man. She was sitting next to me and her arms were around me, rubbing my shoulders and my arms. Some of the older girls said, “Get Rhoda away from so-and-so.” Which she did, and afterwards they told me.”
“I had never ever heard of anything like that. In the show, we had Lea Sonia who was a female impersonator. We had a wardrobe mistress. She could call a spade a shovel. She must have been about sixty.
“Carrie Sewell was her name. She used to dress Lea Sonia. I asked one of the other girls one day, how do you hide it? She said, ‘We’ll ask Carrie.’ Because Carrie used to dress him. She used to tape it back so that it wouldn’t show. That’s how we found out that he could go on looking like a girl.
“It was all taped back. Those things for us were real, we’d talk about those, they were sort of exciting things I guess.”
Rhoda also worked with young Brisbane theatre polymath George Lawrence — pianist, music arranger, costume designer and producer/director of live revues.
“I thought he was my boyfriend but he wasn’t… I met him when I was about sixteen. He was very talented as an artist in every way. He’d drawn this beautiful picture of me with ‘Sweet sixteen, so-and-so’… That’s one little inkling that I misread.”
Rhoda often visited George’s family at the garage they owned in South Brisbane. His extended Lebanese family all lived together including two unmarried aunts and a couple of uncles.
“I’d go over there at weekends and George would cut out costumes. The aunts would ask me, ‘Has George kissed you yet,’ and I’d say, ‘No.’ I think they were trying to find out whether he was gay too. I think the brothers had an idea, the uncles.”
US radio operator Michael Scrittorale was also gay. A dancer from the age of five, he appeared in Springtime in the Rockies with Betty Grable before enlisting. Rhoda met Michael in 1944.
“[George] and the Americans decided to put on a show. He asked if would I do the dances, or choreography as you call it today. I said yes and there was an American soldier who was also a dancer, Michael Scrittorale. [George] did the music and there was a lot of the humour and other things done by the American servicemen and we got the ballet together of Australian girls. So we did that show which was called ‘Khaki and Lace’…
“Unbeknownst to me, later on, I realised that Michael and George were a twosome… Of course, then, naturally, he would have met Michael and they might have come up with the idea of the show… It wasn’t until years later. Somebody said, ‘Did you know?’ They didn’t call it gay in those days they called it camp. He was camp. You’d hear expressions like, They’re as camp as a row of tents. Or they were a queen. And fairies was another one.”
Like many wartime romances, George’s and Michael’s did not outlast the war. Michael resumed his entertainment career in the US. He danced on Broadway in addition to film and television roles. He finished his career as a costume director on shows like Saturday Night Live and Captain Kangaroo. George Lawrence became a well-known Brisbane radio personality as musical director and program host on Brisbane’s Labor Party-owned 4KQ.
Read Rhoda’s complete interview at the UNSW Australians at War Archive.
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